Research had tied breastfeeding to a number of benefits – everything from fewer infections to better thinking and memory skills. Many of those same studies have also found that benefits are greater for those that are breastfed longer. A new study from Greece has added even more information to those previous studies by linking improved cognitive, language and motor development in toddlers that were breastfed for at least six months or longer.
Dr. Leda Chatzi from the University of Crete and her colleagues used data from a long-term study of 540 mothers and their children. When the children reached 9 and 18 months, mothers were asked when they started breastfeeding and for how long they chose to nurse. Researchers also tested the children’s cognitive abilities, language skills and motor development at 18 months.
Overall, about 89 percent of all the babies had been breastfed – 13 percent for less than a month, 52 percent for one to six months, and 35 percent for six months or longer.
Those that had been breastfed for any amount of time scored higher on cognitive, receptive communication and fine motor portions of the test than children who weren’t breastfed at all. However, those that were breastfed for six months or longer scored highest in the cognitive, receptive and expressive communication, and fine motor sections of the test.
The differences were not extreme, but they were enough to indicate that there are some definite benefits to breastfeeding for six months or longer (current recommendations from the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics include breastfeeding exclusively for six months). For example, on the cognitive assessment test (score of normal = 100), children who were never breastfed scored a 97, on average while those that were breastfed for six months or longer scored an average of 104.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute says he wasn’t surprised by the information from new study. In fact, he told Reuters Health that “[Most evidence] pretty clearly shows there are significant medical benefits of breastfeeding.”
“I think that the evidence is now of sufficient quality that we can close the book on these benefits and focus, instead, on how do we succeed in promoting breastfeeding because all of the studies, including this one, that have looked at it have found a linear relationship, which is to say that the benefits accrue with each additional month that a child is breastfed,” he added.
And therein lies the problem. While about 60 to 80 percent of all women start breastfeeding their babies in the United States, less than 30 percent of them are doing so at four months, and even fewer are doing so at six months of age.
And while the study took place in Greece, Dr. Chatzi and her colleagues admitted that they were rather surprised at the relatively low number of women breastfeeding at six months.
“We were surprised by the fact that breastfeeding loves in Greece remain low, even though there is an ongoing effort by the Greek State to promote breastfeeding practices,” Chatzi told Reuters Health in an email.
Dr. Christakis says that part of the drop is due to poor support in the workplace and very little time off for new mothers.
“One of the reasons we see such a big drop off in the United States and elsewhere around four months is because women return to work,” Christakis said. “The real challenge we have is with sustaining breastfeeding. I believe very strongly that we need a public health approach to doing so because these are public health issues – improving child development, benefits society as a while and society has to support women achieving that goal. We need to have baby-friendly work places that help women continue to either breastfeed or pump when they return to work. There’s that African proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ It takes a village to breastfeed as well, and all sectors have to contribute.”
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